From Islam to Poly Feminist! Tales of an Ex-Muslim Traveler!
My journey into sexuality in the modern world began in my sophomore year at York University in Toronto, Canada. Young, idealistic and a Sociology major; I wanted to save the world. I loved taking on assignments on controversial topics: Recreational drugs, feminism, homosexuality, AIDS, prostitution, racism.
One of my major essays was called Pornography; where do we draw the line? As part of this assignment I had to go around campus showing female staff and students a series of sexually explicit pictures cut from various "men's" magazines and then to ask them whether they felt these images were erotic or pornographic. (I was also hoping to meet a couple of open-minded girls. That's why I chose this topic!)
No such luck. Though it was only 1982, Political Correctness had already established firm roots in this cold, dreary Canadian campus. Many of the females found the pictures degrading and exploitative with no redeeming features whatsoever. (The horror was that I had personally picked the photos and I had grown quite fond of some of them!) I was condemned to be a lonely young man for quite a long time after that survey.
However, during the course of my assignment, I did notice the not too subtle difference between men and women when it came to their enjoyment of erotic\pornographic images. I delved deeper into the subject. (My major was Sociology so what else could I do!) I read the feminists; Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and so on. "Give us Erotica" they cried. "Not Pornography." But then they often went all fuzzy when it came to defining exactly what was erotica. I surveyed females on campus and asked them to describe what they saw as "erotica". No two answers were the same. Yet feminist writers and many females I spoke to were almost universal in their condemnation of pornography per se and the male commercialization of sexuality in general.
The male counter-reaction was often just as harsh. "These women who want to ban sex films are just prudes who just can't face the sight of an erect penis"; "feminists are anti-sex and anti-men"; "they see only lesbian depictions of sex as erotic; anything else is pornographic"; "Some "wimmin" seem to think that if a guy reads Penthouse then he has to go out right afterwards and rape". And so the war of the sexes raged on. For me doing that essay was a turning point in my life. This issue was just too interesting to let go!
The smell of food can make us hungry. Should the sight of sex make us horny? With men it seems to do just that. A man can bring himself to orgasm in two minutes flat by merely masturbating and watching a naughty movie. However it is simply not the same with a woman. (At least not in two minutes!) As women are quick to state, a little more is required. It is not enough just to show naked bodies pumping away at each other. There needs to be some sort of story under all the skin and sweat. Preferably something exotic, esoteric and romantic. And then anything goes!
Over the years, I slowly began to build up a collection of erotic art and literature from the various countries of my travels. I would often show samples to my female friends. Almost without exception, they were fascinated by these decidedly different interpretations of erotica. It was quite a difference from that first survey I did all those years ago at York U.! My curiosity was awakened.
As an unemployed Sociology major I had the time to go deeper into my investigations. And so I did. I journeyed to the netherworld of the Netherlands, the notorious city of Amsterdam. And there, near the infamous red light district, was my destination, The Venus Tempel Sex Museum. Though the name was rather tacky (as were many of the exhibits), this "museum" was nonetheless quite an eye opener. It had one of the largest collections of historical and cultural erotica in the world and so, it was the perfect place to observe the reactions of visitors from around the world!
I stood outside the museum for many long days in the cold, wet, dreary, (again!) Damstraat of central Amsterdam, feeling like a bedraggled voyeur but nobly pursuing my calling. With my damp, soggy notebook in hand I would collect statistics and observe the nuances of the visitors. I discovered that 42% of the visitors there were women. I thought this figure was especially impressive when I compared it to the almost negligible number of women who frequent the more traditional sex shops and other sex oriented establishments.
I saw some of the most surprising things: time after time when couples walked by the museum it was the female who dragged in her protesting boyfriend or husband by the arm! Many women also went in singly or in pairs. Once inside, they would gaze in open admiration at the exhibits and read most of the explanation captions with obvious interest. There was nothing furtive about their behavior. On the contrary, both the female and the male visitors would often giggle and laugh and generally have a good time.
It was the same in other museums of this kind: I found that The Museums of Erotic Art in Munich, Hamburg, and Copenhagen and The Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco all have large proportions of women visiting their historical and cultural erotica sections.
Eureka! I began to see that there was an alternative to the images of sexuality put out by the male dominated pornographic industry. (Though I'm still rather attached to my Penthouse collection!) Historical and cultural erotica, whether art and philosophy from the Kama Sutra, statues and carvings of Dionysian revelry from Ancient Greece and Rome or sumptuous 19th century erotic French paintings; they provide the depth, context and romance that male pornography often lacks.
That was where I began to see that sexuality can be worked with in an ethical way that brings benefits to society rather than costs. And so the idea of the World Art Erotica was born!